Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay

9780062413505_p0_v4_s1200x630Roxane Gay began this anthology in an attempt to unravel the nebulous concept of “rape culture”– to engage with the question, “What is it like to live in a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence?” Ultimately, this piece became a place where diverse individuals across the gender spectrum could reclaim their own stories, free from expectations about what it means to carry the burden of trauma.

Gay and the contributing authors created a space where it’s okay to say, “It WAS that bad. It still is.” This anthology does not offer simple truths about sexual violence or a literary tonic for those scarred by it, but it does provide insight into why these kinds of stories are silenced and why every one of them matters. The authors, so far beyond vulnerable, offer readers the broken bits of themselves so that their experiences might become something more than a car crash everyone likes to observe in a most unhelpful way.

“I’m writing this so it can be a part of the compendium of other sad and bad stories like these, because maybe the compendium will say something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

These stories are brimming with emotional chaos and contradictions, but together, the voices ring true in a kind of perverse harmony of pain and healing. Together, the survivors scream unapologetically that each of us matter, and this can’t continue. Every time someone musters the courage to speak up, every time we refuse to diminish our own pain for the sake of others, the Movement is that much closer to holding people accountable for the suffering they’ve inflicted and a little bit closer to a cultural revolution.

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“It’s time to pull out the scalpel and turn it around. Slash vents in the paper walls of this master’s house of heteropatriarchal colonialist mass hallucination that claims to be our reality. Give vent to our rage. Be bad. Dare to survive.” –So Mayer 

The Affairs of the Falcóns

514R75L5G6L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In the Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero illustrates the complex politics and emotions at play within a single family trying to make their way as immigrants in a the US: the racism and classism within the Peruvian community, strained loyalties and the dissolution of marriages, children being raised as Americans but frequently reminded that they are outsiders, the economic and political regimes that cause widespread displacement, and the sacrifices people will justify in the name of love and survival.

In Peru, Ana faces constant discrimination and disdain by her own people. As an indigenous, dark-skinned woman from the campo with no assets and the wrong accent, even her own husband’s family is ashamed of her. For Ana, the opportunity to live in New York as an undocumented immigrant is her only pathway to a dignified life where her family is safe from the violence of civil war. No matter how much she struggles to provide basic needs like food, medicine, and a home for her husband and children, it is this desperate hope for a better life, and no fathomable alternative, that drives her forward at any cost.

This novel puts into perspective the nuanced experience of immigrants in the US. Ironically, the fact that Americans have a tendency to group all immigrants into the same identity and social strata is precisely what Ana appreciates about being in New York. She still has no socioeconomic status, but the simple ability to blend in among the immigrant population, to be on equal footing with other Peruvians and Latinos, is a privilege she is deeply grateful for.

The story of the Falcóns is painfully human and inspirational at the same time, as Rivero captures a feeling of desperation and imperfect love in a genuinely empathetic way.

All her life, she’d been made to feel small and inconsequential. Whenever the feeling was too much to bear, she ran. Outside of Santa Clara, her skin, her hair, the way she spoke—all of it only exacerbated those feelings. She couldn’t help but fall into the trap. Lose that accent, lighten those strands. Marry up. Marry light. But marrying Lucho only reinforced how little the world thought of her. She was now the chola in the family.

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The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

A1a-mCOkXRLFrom an outsider’s view, Wang’s identity stands apart from the common conception of someone with schizoaffective disorder—she is ivy-league educated, exceedingly well-dressed, and “high-functioning” when she is not in the grips of psychosis. After being kicked out of her university for her mental health status, Wang begins a never ending journey into a health system whose diagnoses, treatments, and policies are often at odds with her autonomy and humanity.

As her schizoaffective disorder is compounded by PTSD and chronic Lyme disease, Wang strives to embrace the liminal spaces she has no choice but to inhabit. She learns how she might be able to keep herself tethered to reality just enough to find peace and engage with the insights that her psychotic episodes may have to offer. Her essays both illuminate the outer workings of her mental illness while documenting the terrifying ways that her sense of self is swept away time and again.

“When the self has been swallowed by illness, isn’t it cruel to insist on a self that is not illness?” At the core of this essay collection is this simple question. In it, Wang asks us whether it is really an act of generosity when we make a distinction between a person and the illness that makes up their reality (e.g. calling someone a schizophrenic versus a person suffering from schizoaffective disorder). In whose service do we define this boundary, and what is it that we value in other people that makes them worthy of love and respect?

The Collected Schizophrenias offers so much of Wang–her most vulnerable uncertainties and darkest delusions, alongside a wealth of information about the diseases known as the schizophrenias. She presents all of this with a humility and eloquent clarity that make her story unforgettable.

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Native Country of the Heart by Cherríe Moraga

 

**Originally published on Latino Book Review

9780374219666From the beloved queer Chicana feminist writer Cherríe Moraga, Native Country of the Heart is a memoir told in parallel with the memoir of her Mexican mother, Elvira. Elvira is the foundational stone on which Moraga builds her own Chicana feminism and family, a woman whose beauty, rage, and fuerza incansable were unmatched in the eyes of Cherríe. Cherríe Moraga’s life story is one of reclamation and resistance: reclaiming her indigenous Californian and Mexican roots in a Gringo world, while resisting the shame and guilt forged by the patriarchy and religion of her family’s culture.

With Spanish words and phrases infusing her prose with a poetic precision that only the two languages combined can achieve, Moraga takes us from the 1930’s in Tijuana, Mexico to the 1960’s in San Gabriel, California, and beyond.  Alzheimer’s disease eventually takes the wheel of Elvira’s life, both incapacitating her at a functional level while simultaneously revealing her most repressed desires and authentic self. Cherríe, becoming a mother to her deteriorating parents, grapples with the feat of relinquishing control and surrendering her mother through the haze of dementia to the spirits of her ancestors.

From her childhood experience of being isolated and fearful that her identity might be the thing that tears her family part, to her mixed-blood experience of feeling always on the edge of two cultures, to the prolonged, painful loss of the matriarchs of her family, Moraga’s storytelling embodies both an immense grief and a powerful life-force.

How to explain the complexity of this? What it means to be—not just me but us. To know yourself as a member of a pueblo on the edge of a kind of extinction, and at the same time a lesbian lover and mother, where you truly do live your life in constant navigation through whatever part of your identity is being snuffed out that morning—in the classroom, at the community meeting, the gasoline station, the take-out counter—Mexican, mixed-blood, queer, female, almost-Indian. And a poverty masked by circumstance. For all my feminism, this is why I left a white women’s movement in the late 1970’s. So I wouldn’t have to explain anymore, translate anymore.

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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

39872813._uy630_sr1200630_.jpgReading Mouthful of Birds feels like occupying some kind of hybrid world of dreams and folklore, where the subconscious masquerades as a stream of characters enacting scenes that aren’t fully coherent with reality, but every moment is vivid and visceral. The short stories are full of nightmarish scenarios, like someone auditioning to be an assassin by proving their capacity for violence, a man being held captive at a train station indefinitely because he didn’t have the correct change for a ticket, or a teenage girl who will suddenly only eat live birds. The protagonists are oblivious to the bewildering circumstances they are about to endure, and like many of us in our truest nightmares, the characters find themselves misunderstood or full of regret.

By depicting themes of violence and depression within unnervingly mundane contexts, Schweblin suggests that the real monstrosity is society’s complicity to and reaction to both of those things respectively. Violence is either glorified as art and entertainment, or glossed over as business as usual. Mental illness and depression are often poorly understood by those not suffering from it, and to witness the characters try to rationalize these conditions is heart wrenching.

As these ordinary people blunder their way through unexpected trials, Mouthful of Birds will leave readers grasping for answers.  Schweblin does not indulge in elaborations but will grip readers just enough to keep one’s mind tossing and turning with infinite interpretations.

What he felt at that moment was the complete opposite of fear—it was something close to madness, but with the absolute certainty he was taking the right step. The exciting anguish of recognizing that what one is doing will ultimately change something important.

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